You never paint what you see or think you see. You paint with a thousand vibrations the blow that struck you.– Nicholas de Staël
My dreams sometimes include children. But lately there’s been a plethora of children-filled dreams. Dreams that I long to understand and am often sad to leave upon waking. Some mornings I push the snooze button on my alarm and try to return to the dream. My intentional awareness must be what’s been bringing those dreams back to me in flashes of déjà vu for the past week or so.
One dream involved a group of children at a boarding school or summer camp. I’m not sure what my job was, but I think I was a teacher or something. But I kept screwing up—getting lost en route to a class, losing students on an outing.
Another dream involved a daycare of sorts, and a baby I was responsible for and lost.
I’ve abandoned a former habit of writing down my dreams, so I can’t remember the others clearly. But this morning I felt the urge to explore their meanings or messages a bit. I went to my psychology bookshelf and pulled out the book, The Art of Dreaming: Using Your Dreams to Unlock Your Creativity (Celestial Arts Publishing, 1995) by Veronica Tonay, Ph.D.
First I read a little about creative people and dreams in general:
In Jungian psychology, the child is a potent creative symbol in dreams, representing a new part of the psyche, regeneration, and rebirth. Clinical psychologists notice their clients often dream of children when going through major transitions. Most of my creative clients dream of children when they are about to embark upon a new creative project.
This resonated with me immediately… but then I’m almost always about to embark on a new creative project. I’m aware of two such projects which are in the works, but I’m also wondering if writing new scenes for my novel—which I’ve been laboring over revising for months now—isn’t part of this.
I read more about creative types and our struggles:
Creative people who do not become seriously mentally ill (and these are the majority!) tend to be more impulsive, more depressed, and more angry than others…. Paradoxically, though, creative people have more inner resources with which to cope with their inner difficulties…. Creative work provides a means for hurt children to find meaning in their experience and may even provide some protection from emotional instability.
There it is. I’m one of the “hurt children” (due to childhood sexual abuse) and I struggle with those emotional health issues. Dr. Tonay continues to describe some of my tendencies:
Creative people are driven. We are typically less easily satisfied than are other people. We are often ambitious for our work to be recognized by others…. We must develop a lifestyle that allows us to create.
Most of this isn’t new information—for me or the general public. Neither is much of what I write about in these “Mental Health Monday” blog posts.” I’m not a mental health professional. I’m just trying to interpret the world for myself and others who might be following a similar path. So what about the significance of endangered children in our dreams? Like the one I lost in last night’s dream?
Along with replaying and confronting us with real feelings we felt in childhood… endangered dream children represent us. The child within us accompanies us throughout our lives and can be heard the loudest in those who were emotionally wounded (for example, creative people). The child we were and still are needs our attention, respect, and caring. Again, he or she also needs our willingness to be childlike, because the child can help us to find our creativity…. Endangered dream children indicate that our creativity is right now in danger of being destroyed or hurt.
Of course bells are going off as I read this… how is my creativity in danger of being destroyed or hurt? Is the danger coming from others, or myself? Or both? It’s taken me years to begin to carve out a space for my work, and to learn to say “no” to things that distract me from writing. But something—I don’t know what—seems to be keeping me from finishing revisions on the novel. I return to Dr. Tonay’s words:
Creative people must take courage to make their creative expression a priority in their lives and must fearlessly protect their creative children. If we do not, we may dream of little ones in danger.
I must confess that although I’ve been reading and thinking about this since I first woke up this morning, I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do. There are some good questions to ask myself at the end of the chapter, including:
What does the dream child need? Is there something I can imagine saying to him or her? Doing for him or her? What action can I take to ensure I get what I need?
Stay tuned. And thanks, always for reading. Feel free to chime in.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve blogged about my patron saint, Mary of Egypt. But since her feast day is coming up (April 1) and this Sunday is Saint Mary of Egypt Sunday in the Orthodox Church, this seems like a good day for some reflection on her.
About 35 years ago—we had been married for about ten years and were part of a “startup” religious group—my husband returned home from a trip to California he had taken with other “clergy” from our group in Mississippi. They had visited some Orthodox sites and he brought me a gift from one of them—an icon of a scantily-clad saint with sun-bleached skin and hair.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“Her name is Mary of Egypt.”
“So, why did you choose this particular icon to bring to me?”
He hesitated a moment, and then said, “She told me to bring it to you.”
My husband isn’t a touchy-feely sort of guy. At all. He’s also not prone to overtly mystical things. Except, of course, that he’s an Orthodox priest. But he wasn’t a priest when he brought me the icon. He wasn’t even sure about her story. So we looked it up and read about her.
It would be another ten years before I would embrace Mary of Egypt as my patron saint. And another ten years before I would come to realize why she reached out to me. But she’s been watching over me with diligence for over a quarter of a century now, so I honor her on her two feast days each year. It’s a simple gesture, really. I take flowers and place them before her icon at St. John Orthodox Church, my parish here in Memphis. And I continue to ask her to intercede for me in my struggles. That’s all.
But that’s the once-a-year ritual. The other 364 days each year I simply try to keep her in my heart. Be aware of her presence. Ask for her prayers. Icons help with that. So, at the end of this post I’m going to share a few images of this woman who has come to be known and loved as the “icon of repentance” throughout the Orthodox Church worldwide.
Oh—and I know I’ve shared this many times, but Mary of Egypt is also featured as one of the three main characters in my novel-in-progress, Cherry Bomb. I have fictionalized the story of her childhood, giving her the name, “Neema.” And there are weeping icons (hers) in the book as well.
In April of 1997, when I was visiting an Orthodox monastery in Michigan, I penned the following poem on Saint Mary’s Feast Day. Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us.
Saint Mary of Egypt
Fill my soul, O Lord
As you filled the soul of Your Holy Mother;
Let there be no room in my soul
For anything but you.
Fill my belly, O Lord
As You filled blessed Mary in the desert;
Let my sustenance be only You
And the blessing of Your Saints.
Fill my mind, O Lord
As you filled the theologians
With words to teach us Your ways
And wisdom that gives life.
Fill my mouth, O Lord
As you filled the mouth of David,
Enabling him to sing your praise
And teaching repentance through his psalms.
Fill my days, O Lord
As you fill each moment of time
With good works appointed for our sake
Increasing us in virtues and piety.
Fill my nights, O Lord
As you filled the desert nights
With watchfulness, tears and victory
For holy saints who sought you there.
Fill my flesh, O Lord
As you fill those who keep the fast;
With Your own Body and Blood
So that it becomes my only satisfaction.
Fill my eyes, O Lord
As once you filled Saint Mary’s eyes,
First with humble tears of repentance
And finally with your glorious Light.
Writing on Wednesday: Honest. Human. Smart. Ferocious. Revelatory. Heart-wrenching. Loving. Devastating. Hopeful.
Those are some of the words used by the authors who wrote blurbs for the anthology, Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women (She Writes Press, March, 2015). The twenty-five essays in this powerful collection are as diverse as they are universal. What they have in common is, as Neil White says, “a rare, uncensored, sometimes terrifying glimpse into the female psyche.” Nina Gaby, the editor, is a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She ends her introduction to the collection with these words:
As we explore the fragile and unfathomable nature of lost friendships, we find our own resilience in the stories of others, these wise memes, these templates for redefinition. Lost friendships, betrayal, emptiness, lessons learned–the unthinkable leaves us in that dark place, but only for a while. We rebound because we must, because we are vital. And we rebound because loss, among other things, only serves to make us stronger and to make what remains that much more precious.
Victoria Zackheim writes in the Foreword:
To fully comprehend the trauma of a friend severing ties with us-or, as Gaby words it, of being unfriended and unceremoniously dumped–we must first understand the importance of friendship. The friendship between women–whether we harken back to the biblical, historical, literary, or junior high school variety–has ever been an alliance in which we share part of our selves: secrets, fears, petty gossip…. We trust friendship, put our faith in it, sometimes forget how precious it is, and occasionally betray it.
Excerpts from a few of the essays: (Buy the book and read all of them!)
She stonewalled me. It was inconceivable but true. I’d been dumped by my closest friend, the woman who was dearer than a sister. She had erased herself from my life. And worse: with no explanation.—Carol Cassara, “Keeping Secrets”
There is no friend like that first. There is no confidant or partner so dear. The first love learned, our first friend is our mother, our spouse, and our child. But once that second soul is gone, the need for it fades. Thoughts aren’t communal anymore; desires are not spoken. And what of it? Much worse things have been left behind, much more of history has wilted and been forsaken. The lame cannot be carried along.—Suzanne Herman, “Ten Days”
Your marriage ends; someone dies. It’s horrific. It’s unbearable. And yet, quickly, a circle of compassion surrounds you. People offer condolences, companionship, and casseroles. You lose a friend and, unless you tell, no one even knows. If you do tell, no one much cares. Not even other women, who know that the loss of a friend is very different for a woman than it is for a man, that it’s a crushing, terrifying experience—yet they say she was “just a friend.”—Jacquelyn Mitchard, “Since I Don’t Have You”
I didn’t know how to stay through pain or peskiness. With girlfriends, I didn’t know how to work through their or my own ugliness, how to fight for the friendship. I left because it was easier, and the story went that she broke my heart…. But the truth was I had broken my own heart with pride and stubbornness and timidity…. I would have to learn how to fight for the women in my life. I would have to learn how to fight, ultimately, for myself.—Alexis Paige, “Bridezilla or Chill Bride? Which One Are You? Take This Quiz to Find Out!”
I’ve forgiven the girls who unfriended me in high school, but Cindy’s words will always be with me. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, if I can use them to become a more authentic person without going all introspective in a navel-gazing way. Maybe I was being superficial in my approach to finding happiness. I know now that my wounded teenage psyche was doing the best it could to survive what might be the most difficult of all life stages. Maybe we never do get over high school.—Susan Cushman, “High School Never Ends”
Early friendships were fraught with hyprocrisy, contextual shame, and cultural marginalization, equations far too intricate for a thirteen-year-old. Dumping was a more complicated phenomenon than we ever acknowledged, and easier to do than to try to understand. I had to pretend it didn’t matter. I learned to project a safer perspective onto a wall between me and the pain. It made me independent with a never-quite-fulfilled craving for closeness. Maybe that was part of the problem. The resultant sheer avoidance never made it any easier, not at thirteen, not at fifty.—Nina Gaby (Editor), “Simply Geometry: The Art of War For Girls”
About five years ago I wrote an experimental essay to document a three-day binge. Then in 2012 I was invited to contribute an essay to The Shoe Burnin’ Anthology: Stories of Southern Soul. I submitted a couple of pieces I had already written and the editor(s) chose this one: “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day Search for Everything.” I blogged about this in August of 2012 (which went into some detail on WHY women binge) so why am I telling you this again now? Because I’ve been struggling with (food) bingeing again lately, and it’s something no one can understand unless they’ve experienced it. I’m not going to share the entire essay here …. only the pages about the first day of the three-day binge. The rest of the essay includes episodes of bulimia and depression. (Please buy the book to read the rest of the essay and some great stories and a wonderful music CD comes with it… this Kirkus Review says the collection could “retune the meaning of Southern.”)
This is longer than my usual blog post, so feel free to skip it and come back Wednesday if the subject matter doesn’t interest you. But if it does, please leave a comment here or on the Facebook thread. Thanks for reading.
“Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day Search for Everything” (excerpt):
Tuesday morning, 7:30 a.m. Paul Newman’s Special Blend Organic Decaf K-Cup goes into the Keurig brewer. Eight ounces of steaming java flow into the white mug with the blue logo from Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, on one side, and a quote from Winnie the Pooh Goes Visiting on the other. Remember the scene where Pooh ate too much and got stuck in the hole in the tree, so he asked Christopher Robin to comfort him? Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness? Breathing in the full-bodied aroma from the handpicked Arabica beans, I stir in three packets of raw sugar until they completely dissolve and then add a quick pour of Land O’Lakes fat free half and half. 70 calories and zero grams of fat. Not as sustaining as a Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks, which I gave up after discovering that each grande Caramel Macchiato (without whipped cream) has 240 calories and 7 grams of fat. With whip? Add another 5 to 11 grams of fat.
8:30 a.m. Frosted Cheerios make a sound like an old-fashioned bicycle bell as they tumble into a cornflower blue ceramic bowl with a terra-cotta glaze on the inside. A few ounces of fat-free milk moisten the tiny donuts just enough to set the sugar-coating free but not enough to subdue the crunch each bite delivers, temporarily satisfying the craving triggered by a life-long eating disorder known as pica. (Crunching on these cholesterol-fighting nuggets is certainly preferable to ice—which ruins teeth—and clay and other non-food items, long buried in my past.) The method of delivery is an 18-gauge Towle Beaded Antique oval soupspoon, which has a nice heft, even when only filled with cereal. After licking the last drops of sugary-sweet milk from the glossy mirrored bowl of the spoon, I am greeted by my image-in-reverse—turned on my head by my first encounter with food this morning, and already thinking about what comes next.
9:30 a.m. Writing, laundry, writing, bills, writing, Facebook, writing, email. Diversionary tactics only keep the cravings at bay for brief intervals. By mid-morning I remember that McDonalds quits serving breakfast at 10:30 a.m. A mere three blocks separates my kitchen from theirs and the sizzling, greasy sausages snuggled into those buttery biscuits. Rule #1: Only eat sausage and biscuits on road trips. After 10:30 those succulent baby sandwiches are replaced by French fries—tossed around in hot, oily baskets with a blizzard of salt covering every surface of each morsel—the fast food that changed a generation of taste buds forever. Rule #2: Never order French fries. Ever. By 10:30 I have managed to keep my body out of the kitchen for an hour, but my mind is anywhere but on the work at hand. Except that today I’m actually writing about food.
10:30 a.m. I’ve been awake for three hours with no protein or salt. Generously salted scrambled eggs cooked well-done in real butter like an overly bothered omelet satisfies both needs. But the salt makes me thirsty and the protein doesn’t act quickly enough for the instant blood sugar boost I’m craving, so I wash them down with a few sips of ice cold canned Coke. I open one can a day and sip on it for about twenty-four hours—my replacement for diet colas, preferring quality to quantity. I was so excited when the new six-ounce cans came out—the ones shaped like tiny little Red Bulls—because of the way they feel in my hand, and they help me cut down on calories. Or at least that’s the plan. The edge of the can has an almost sensual feel on my lips as the quintessential caramel-colored thirst-quencher glides down my throat, delivering a refreshing carbonated rush. But as I finish washing the saucepan and putting my dishes away, the craving only grows stronger. Sugar. Chocolate. I scoop a couple of dips of Edy’s Slow-Churned Rich & Creamy vanilla ice cream—the kind with half the fat, of course—into a stemless martini glass. Next I drizzle Hershey’s chocolate syrup over the ice cream, enough to assure chocolate to the last bite. This time a Towle teaspoon delivers the goods, its smaller shape being more efficient at scraping out the final bits of chocolate syrup that cling to the bottom. When the spoon doesn’t do the job, I use my tongue. By now the morning is nearly gone, I’ve achieved very little real work, and shame sets in.
11:30 a.m. How many times do I look at the clock, waiting for permission to pour that first drink? Some days I make it until afternoon. But not today. I realize I haven’t stopped eating, drinking, or thinking about eating and drinking all morning. I don’t need the bathroom scales to tell me I’m at my all-time heaviest weight. My clothes remind me each time I shed my stretchy yoga pants for jeans or my baggy t-shirt for a fitted blouse. I’ve put away close to a thousand calories before noon, with plans to prepare a nice, oven-roasted pork tenderloin, baked sweet potatoes and fresh Brussels sprouts for dinner. None of those foods appeal to me, but they are favorites of my husband and daughter. I already know that I will sit down to dinner and only nibble at the nutritional fare my body really needs. By 7 p.m. tonight I’ll be full, but still not satisfied. And so at 11:45 a.m. this morning I pour a glass of Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc into a small pink Depression glass wine goblet I got at an antique store in Arkansas. It doesn’t have the same feel as the larger, clear white wine goblets from Williams Sonoma, but I can’t hide them in the dishwasher amongst the coffee mugs and juice glasses like I can the smaller glasses. I save the larger ones for evenings when my husband is imbibing with me. Anticipation builds with the sound of the cork leaving the bottle. The distinctive chug chug chug of the wine filling the glass. It’s not really a cork—it’s a rubber wine stopper (from Rabbit) and its phallic shape and texture is tempting. I place it in my mouth and suck the last drops of wine from its surface as I slowly pull it out and push it back into the bottle. The first swallow is always the best, bringing instant gratification, holding promises of relief, of edges softening, jaws relaxing, mind slowing down, dark clouds abating. And sometimes it makes good on those promises, but the relief is only temporary. Even now as I’m penning these words, the afternoon has begun and a second glass of wine is calling.
12:30 p.m. My husband’s perma-press shirts and khaki pants are washed, dried, and hung, wrinkle-free, in his closet—mindless work that somehow soothes because I can be successful in this endeavor. I love the way the Egyptian cotton feels and smells as I rescue his shirts from the dryer. The comfort is short-lived, as my mind returns to food, and to the fact that everything I’ve eaten today has either been simple carbohydrates or protein. Not one of the recommended five daily servings of fruits or vegetables has graced my lips, unless you count wine as a fruit, in which case I’m now on my second serving. I look around the kitchen and find fresh peaches ripening in a small brown bag on the counter. I pull one out and make a small indention in its flesh with my thumb—it feels ripe. I bring the fuzzy yellow-red orb to my nose (I always smell my food before tasting it) and breathe in its sweet aroma. It’s ready. Using a small, white-handled Cutco paring knife, I make one incision, then another, allowing a perfect slice to be removed from the peach. I observe its texture—free of pithiness—and its color: red tendrils, freshly pulled from the seed, contrast with the shiny yellow crescent. I put the entire slice into my mouth and savor it slowly. I give it an 8. If it were a 10, I would eat the rest of the peach naked. Instead, I pour a small amount of white sugar onto a saucer and dip the remaining slices, one at a time, into the sugar before eating them. No longer savoring the flavor, I eat mindlessly, reaching into the bag for another peach, dipping one slice after another into the sugar, waiting for a surge of energy and wondering if it will sustain me for an afternoon of writing and working out and preparing dinner.
1:30 p.m. A second glass of Monkey Bay carries me just past 1500 words of this essay but the sugar high is over and the salt craving has returned with a vengeance. Chips. I want chips with guacamole (that’s a fruit, right?) or cheese dip. But if I go there, will I make it upstairs to work out? I hurry to the elliptical, rushing past the pantry and upstairs onto the machine that will help me burn some of those empty calories and hopefully shoot some much-needed endorphins into my nutritionally and chemically unbalanced system. I run down my list of recorded shows on TiVo and settle on last night’s new episode of Law and Order SVU, which requires a bit of mental energy to follow. I fast-forward the commercials, assuring a food-free media session, although it’s nearly impossible not to notice the butter dripping off the pasta in the Olive Garden spots, even at double-fast-forward. I actually slow down to watch one of them, nearly drooling into my water bottle in the process.
2:30 p.m. Four and a half hours until dinner. Plenty of time to metabolize a snack first, right? A little queso dip into the microwave and a dozen or so crisp, salty tortilla chips from the pantry join me by the sink where I stand to eat them while watching more of my favorite TiVo’d shows—this time it’s an old episode of House. The queso is only “medium” but I don’t do hot and spicy so it’s burning my mouth just enough to push my Margarita button. But I swore off making Margaritas at home a long time ago, so I mix up a short Tanqueray and diet tonic with lime. My glass is a wonderful little oval-shaped number from Pottery Barn with wavy lines etched inside. I start with ice—to fill the glass about two-thirds to the top—and then squeeze the fresh lime over the ice, dropping the lime wedge into the glass. The gin comes next. I don’t measure, but guess at the shot—1.5 to 2 ounces. The fizzy diet tonic brings it all to life. I can feel the carbonation tickle my nose as I pull the glass to my mouth, smell the lime, and finally, the Tanqueray. I celebrate the marriage of chips and queso with gin and tonic for about thirty minutes. And then it’s over. I place my hand over my full belly, moving it across my disappearing waistline and running it quickly over my growing love handles. I consider purging, a practice I haven’t outgrown from my teenage years. More shame sets in.
3:30 p.m. Two thousand calories in and three drinks under my belt, I face the computer screen and close my eyes. Maybe I need a nap. It’s either that or another gin and tonic. I’m in no shape to work. The couch wins, and I allow myself the luxury of reading—not just for pleasure but also as research for my novel-in-progress. I’m fascinated by Michael Cunningham’s book, The Hours. Lured into the interior worlds of Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Dalloway and ’50s housewife, Laura Brown, for a while, I don’t think of food, or drink, or my own insecurities. Until I get to the part where Laura Brown’s husband leaves for work and she’s left alone with her son and her responsibilities as a mother. “When her husband is here, she can manage it. She can see him seeing her…. Alone with the child, though, she loses direction. She can’t always remember how a mother would act.” Suddenly I remember that I’m alone, and like Laura Brown, my husband isn’t here to see me, to remind me, if only by his presence, how to act. The familiar fog of disgrace creeps back in. I know I should get up and do something productive, but instead I find my way to the freezer for a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich. Only 140 calories. I take the sandwich back to the couch and continue to read as I taste the cold, low-fat vanilla ice cream wrapped perfectly in the soft, chocolate wafers, which stick to my fingers, requiring licking and sucking to get the bits of chocolate off my fingertips. The process distracts me from my reading, and I return to the freezer for another ice cream sandwich. And yes, a third one, tossing the empty container into the trash, burying it beneath the morning’s cereal box.
5:30 p.m. Time to start dinner for my husband and daughter. I preheat the oven to 350 degrees for the pork tenderloin. Opening the refrigerator to get out the sprouts and sweet potatoes, I see the limes. Another gin and tonic will ease the discomfort of preparing a dinner that I’m too full to eat. A cocktail before dinner—what could be more benign? My husband and daughter arrive home from work. Hi, honey, I’m home. Kiss. How was your day? Oh, fine. Mmm, supper smells delicious, what is it? Pork tenderloin, Brussels sprouts and baked sweet potatoes. Aren’t you joining us, Mom? Hug. She grabs a Stella from the fridge and he mixes a Vodka and 7 with lemon. No, I’m really not hungry, and besides, I kind of snacked all day. Husband and daughter both smile. But I’ll sit and have a drink and visit with you guys while you eat. The Brussels sprouts’ tiny leaves are bright green and glistening. Brown sugar and butter dissolve into the rich orange flesh of the sweet potatoes. Mustard and honey drip from the skin of the pork tenderloin. Nutritionally and aesthetically balanced. So what did you do today, dear? I wrote an essay about food.
8:30 p.m. The evening is filled with talk of our daughter’s impending move to Colorado and plans for her wedding next spring. And my trip to Denver in a week to visit our son and meet my new granddaughter, two weeks old. Our daughter is leaving the nest—forever—in two days. So tomorrow afternoon we have appointments for mother-daughter manicures and pedicures at The Nail Bar down in Harbor Town, followed by drinks at Tug’s grill on the Mississippi River. Later we’ll meet her dad at our favorite sushi restaurant downtown.
11:30 p.m. My husband sleeps soundly beside me. Our daughter is upstairs. Probably on the phone with her fiancé or watching a movie on her computer. The lonely silence beckons me out of the bedroom. It feels like I’m sleepwalking to the kitchen. I open the refrigerator and find the Monkey Bay from earlier this afternoon. About one third full. I twist off the top and consider which glass to fill. Fuck that. I put the bottle to my lips, empty it in four swigs, and toss it into the trash. I reach under the cabinet for a new bottle and put it in the refrigerator for tomorrow.
My Church—St. John the Evangelist in Memphis, Tennessee—is part of a larger organization of parishes in the U.S. known as the Antiochian Archdiocese. (As in, “they were first called Christians at Antioch.”—Acts 11:26) The archdiocese publishes a monthly magazine called The Word. The January 2015 issue has several wonderful articles that I sat down with recently. You can actually read the entire issue here.
One article, “Personhood and an Aging Mind and Body,” was a paper delivered by Peter A. Kavanaugh on November 8, 2014 at a conference at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston. Kavanaugh is a former chaplain at a memory-care facility in Boston and currently works as a healthcare professional at an assisted living home in Nashville, Tennessee. He explores
personhood and dementia “in the light of the Church Fathers, current medical research, and my personal experience in geriatrics.” You can read the entire article (it’s excellent) here.
Since I’ve been mostly long-distance caregiving for my mother since my father’s death in 1998, I’ve witnessed her decline as Alzheimer’s takes over her brain and bodily functions. I’ve read countless articles on Alzheimer’s and specifically on caregiving, but this is the best I’ve ever read. Ever. He begins with excellent definitions of dementia and then talks about how our assumptions about personhood are affected by cultural values—specifically the abilities to think and act. When dementia takes away a person’s ability to think and act for themselves, our culture says they’ve lost their personhood. Kavanaugh disagrees:
The Church Fathers, however, had a very different perspective…. They define personhood in terms of relationship… and on a psychosomatic union, that is, that the body and soul share an indissoluble unity…. This nature exists because we have a nous…. It is fundamentally that which links man with God.
When I try to communicate with my mother now, her mind can’t grasp most of what I’m saying, and most of her words are disjointed and nonsensical. But I know that she is still “in there” and I persist in communicating with her. As Kavanaugh continues:
When the body stops working correctly the soul remains alive and present, but it is unable to communicate or interact with the world effectively…. Dementia does not destroy a person’s nous, and an afflicted person maintains the need for relationships and the possibility of having them. Like the musician struggling to play music on a broken instrument, our memory-impaired loved ones are alive, but cannot play their song as effectively. As each string snaps one by one, certain strings remain unharmed. Our task is to concentrate on the remaining strings, and to learn to listen to the music.
Each time I visit my mother in the nursing home, more strings have snapped. But I’m learning to listen for her song and to sing it back to her. How? Not only with touch—rubbing lotion on her hands, kissing her, brushing her hair—but also with my own words, and with words from songs that historically belong to her. Church hymns. Scriptures. Songs like “You Are My Sunshine.”
The nurses, physical therapists and aids who care for my mother on a daily basis seem to know her song, and for that I am eternally grateful. They tell me anecdotes about “Miss Effie” on the phone and when I visit that indicate to me they are listening. And because of their training, they know instinctively how to let go of the broken strings. I’m having to learn this. Kavanaugh’s words help:
We learn from the elderly a good deal about what is means to be human. At every stage of the aging process, whether someone is in ideal health, or is at the most advanced stage of dementia, we encounter a living, breathing person, wholly in the image of God, and fully able to share a relationship with God and man. By seeing the person beneath the disease, we can learn to nurture a relationship which brings joy and healing…. Ultimately the old and aging give us an opportunity to learn to listen to the music.
Like the Doobie Brothers sang in 1972, “What the people need is a way to make ‘em smile…. It ain’t so hard to do if you know how…. List’nin’ for the happy sounds… And I got to let them fly.” Need help listening to the music? Listen and watch here. I hope my kids will sing my songs back to me when I need to hear them one day….
This is the fun part. (Writing can be fun, but it’s mostly hard work.) If you’re anywhere near Atlanta, Athens (GA), Memphis, Oxford (Mississippi) or New York City in late April or mid May, please catch one of these events for Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women. My essay, “High School Never Ends,” is one of 27 gut-wrenching (don’t worry there’s also some redemption in there) stories of one of the greatest losses a woman or young girl can experience—the loss of a close friend. Not a boyfriend. And not by death or a change in geography, but by the choice of the friend to dump you. What have we all learned from this painful experience?
I’m so thrilled to be hosting our wonderful editor, Nina Gaby, in Memphis and on the road with me to Georgia and Mississippi next month. Nina is a writer, visual artist, and psychiatric nurse practitioner whose essays can be found in collections by Creative Nonfiction, The Best of the Burlington’s Writer’s Workshop, Seal Press, Wising-Up Press, and several periodicals. Her fiction has been published in Lilith Magazine, the Prose-Poem Project, and in short story collections. Her art can be found in a variety of collections, including the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian. She works, writes and lives with her family in New England.
What luck that I’ll be in New York City with my husband for a medical meeting in May on just the right dates to join Nina and a number of fellow contributors for a reading at Bluestocking Books in the Village on May 15. Here’s the schedule for the Southern book tour:
April 23—Avid Books (Athens, Georgia) 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. With Nina Gaby (from Burlington, Vermont)
April 28—The Booksellers at Laurelwood (Memphis) 6:30 p.m. with Nina Gaby.
Read more about the book here at the Booksellers at Laurelwood’s event page.
See you on the road! If you can’t make it to one of these stops, please buy the book from your independent bookseller and write a review on Goodreads, Amazon, your own blog or wherever and let me know about the review. Thanks, everyone!
CNNGo (the CNN travel site) calls the beach “the valium of the travel world.”
The Healthy Travel Blog says:
Maybe it’s the sound of the ocean. Perhaps it’s the salt air, or the feel of the sand between your toes. But there’s now proof from health experts – everybody really does feel better at the beach.
That’s all I’ve got to say today because, well, I’m at the beach for a few days with my bestie. And we both agree our mental health is improving. I’ll be back to more serious blogging on Wednesday.
Thanks for stopping by…. enjoy a few of our favorite memories: sunsets, walks on the beach, cocktails, shopping, dining out…. (Seagrove Beach, Seaside, and Rosemary Beach, Florida).
Continuing my journey through Lent with reflections from God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, I want to share a bit from the pages authored by the Orthodox poet and theologian, Scott Cairns. The essays on each day of Lent are written by different authors. Scott’s reflections are especially meaningful to me, probably because we share the Orthodox spiritual tradition. And also because he is a friend. And a poet.
It’s already the third week of Great Lent… we’re approaching the half way point of our journey. For some of us—those who have struggled to keep the fast, to live a more ascetic life, to pray more, eat less, love more, and forgive—the journey has been exhausting. For others maybe it’s not been so different than the rest of our lives. Those who have been reading my blog for several years know that I typically do “Lent Lite.” And this year has been the same. I’m not a strict faster. And I’m pretty lazy, spiritually. But I have striven to love more and judge less.
In Cairns’ entry on The Third Sunday of Lent, he says:
I must say that it took me a few years before I finally began to understand the efficacy of the Lenten fast; it took a good three years before I would come to know this somber period of preparation as a blessing.
Cairns writes about what he called “the ache of repentance, which is the beginning of our healing.”
Repentance. Not a word most of us like to think about frequently. But without it, we can’t really move forward. And moving forward, as Cairns says—“Don’t beat yourself up”—doesn’t necessarily mean going to extremes in our ascetic efforts.
In his chapter on the Third Tuesday of Lent, Cairns writes about what the church services are like during this time:
Much of the Lenten journey—the long and slow-moving services of the church, the dark vestments, and (most importantly) the coupling of prayer with fasting, and of fasting with almsgiving—has a way of quieting distractions and centering our minds within our hearts. These disciplines reconnect our minds to our bodies, assist our re-pairing our parsed and scattered persons into souls made whole; they also recover for us our often-overlooked connection with others.
I love that he adds that last part—about our connection with others. If we try to go this ascetic path alone, it’s not always fruitful. It needs to also be about love and forgiveness and alms and healing. And those things require the other—someone other than ourselves in the equation.
Cairns ends this chapter with the Lenten prayer most Orthodox Christians pray at every service during Great Lent, and often in our homes with our personal prayers. It’s known as the Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian. I’ll close with this wonderful prayer:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother,
For blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
Before you cringe, this isn’t about those periods, guys. It’s about the kind you put at the end of a sentence. Whew—glad we don’t have to whisper.
The first editor I worked with on the novel I’m (still) revising advised me to chop my long sentences up into shorter, more precise ones. She said the plot would move along better that way. I took her advice, but I’m not sure I’m pleased with the results (of that specific instruction) and I’ve found myself putting back in some of those longer sentences as I continue to revise. Why? Because that’s what we do here in the South. And the folks I hope to attract to my book aren’t the kind of readers who fly through a story, hurrying to get to the next scene. They’re the kind who like to sit on the front porch with a cold drink in the summer, or snuggle up by the fire with hot chocolate in the winter, and meander through the lives of the characters and the descriptions of the landscape of the story.
Sure, I get tired of Hemingway’s prose at times. And I’ve been guilty of cruising through an extensive paragraph of literature if it lingers too long on the color of the grass. But sometimes it’s nice to play with the sentence and see how long you can sustain its momentum.
Frances Mayes did just that in her essay in the Spring 2015 issue of The Oxford American. Her short article, “Frankye’s Cookbooks,” is a snapshot of her mother’s kitchen and culinary world seen through the eyes of a child growing up in South Georgia. It’s full of mouth-watering descriptions of foods—before and after cooking—vivid images of the characters who peopled her kitchen, her family, and her town, and a strong sense of place. Everything one might expect from good literary writing. The only thing that’s missing is periods. There aren’t any. Not a single dot at the end of any line. Well, until you get to the end of the essay. No paragraph indentions either. Just a stream-of-consciousness that flows from a seasoned (this is not for amateurs) writer’s pen straight into the heart of the reader.
I read the essay twice. Once for the enjoyment of the thing, and again to be sure I didn’t miss a period. But there’s only one at the very end of the final phrase of this larger-than-life sentence:
… pulling everything out far into the deceptive calm of memory, whose flood tides no moon can sway.
Why did Mayes choose to write the essay in this style? Was she just pushing the edge of the envelope, experimenting, teasing the reader? Or did the memories flow so seamlessly that it would have interrupted her train of thought to break them up with periods? Is the reader so enthralled with the birthing of the essay (sorry I couldn’t help myself) that she would be disappointed for the interruption that a period would bring?
Reading “Frankye’s Cookbooks” was an exercise in writing for me. I’ll be watching for those periods wherever my reading life leads me now. And wondering where to put the periods in my own work. I’ll be waiting for the right time to say goodbye to each phrase. Because periods really do signal an ending.
This is my third in a series of posts reflecting on Joan Chittister’s book, The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully. If you missed them, you can read my first two posts here:
Today I’m reading her chapter on “Time.” I woke up yesterday morning wondering what happened to the hour we lost we when sprung forward into daylight savings time. Fortunately I had gone to bed early and really didn’t lose any sleep.
And when I woke up it was my birthday and although I had been feted big time on Saturday with a luncheon, gifts, cards, emails, phone calls and lots of Facebook birthday wishes, the reality of being 64 didn’t set in until Sunday. My husband—a huge Beatles fan—has been going around the house singing, “When I’m Sixty-Four” and telling me he will still love me, he will still need me, he will still feed me, and although he didn’t mean it that way, I couldn’t help envisioning myself diminished by Alzheimer’s and him feeding me. But I also felt great love in his cheerful antics.
Back to Chittister’s chapter on time. She opens with a quote from Picasso:
It takes a long time to become young.
And then she reflects on that:
The beauty of the later years, in other words, is that if we have learned through life to trust our own insights at least as much as we trust the insights we have been taught, we find ourselves at the end of a very long life with a very young soul. Time has done for us what needs to be done. We have deepened as people. We have broadened as personalities. We have softened as thinkers. We have abandoned arrogance and authoritarianism for reflection on new ideas and respect for others.
Her words remind me so much of Richard Rohr’s teaching in Falling Upwards—about becoming cultural elders, generative people. About learning to really be present. To really live. Some “bullet points” from Chittister about time:
Time ages things… It ages our irritations and allows us the relief of ignoring them….
Time deepens things, too…. Whatever the many deaths of the day, resurrection is coming.
Time ripens things. It brings everything to fulfillment. We ourselves become more mature, more accepting, more serene…. It gives me a heightened sense of life. It urges me to discover it all.
One thing I love about daylight savings time is that my husband arrives home from work in time to walk with me to the river to watch sunset. And one thing I love about being 64 (and 66) is that we have the time and the mindset to enjoy the gifts those sunsets bring. We are ready to spring forward.
(Photo on my favorite beach – Seagrove Beach, Florida, where I’ll be this Saturday!)